On the trail: A peek at the political stew of 2021

For the Monitor
Published: 1/1/2021 6:00:34 PM
Modified: 1/1/2021 6:00:21 PM

New Hampshire was home to premiere Senate battles in the 2014 and 2016 elections, and it might well be again in 2022, depending on what happens in the Granite State this year.

Former GOP Sen. Scott Brown’s challenge against Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen was one of the top Senate showdowns across the country in the 2014 midterm elections. More than $50 million was spent by the campaigns, the political parties and outside groups, making it the most expensive election in New Hampshire’s history.

But that record was shattered just two years later when roughly $130 million was dished out by all sides in then-Gov. Maggie Hassan’s defeat of Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte in 2016 by roughly 1,000 votes. The blockbuster battle captured plenty of national attention in a year dominated by the Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton presidential clash.

Shaheen’s 2020 re-election was on the backburner when it came to competitiveness, spending, and national attention, as the senator trounced GOP challenger Bryant “Corky” Messner.

But depending on which Republicans decide to challenge Hassan in 2022, New Hampshire may once again land one of the most fierce contests in the fight for control of the Senate.

The biggest question is whether popular Republican Gov. Chris Sununu will decide to challenge Hassan, run for re-election for a fourth two-year term steering New Hampshire, or not seek office in 2022.

For Sununu, who overwhelming won re-election in November, what he’ll do in 2022 is probably low down on the list of priorities right now. Pointing to his continued efforts to combat the coronavirus, and upcoming negotiations to hammer out the state’s next two-year budget, he told Fox News last week that “we’ve got a lot of things I have to deal with over the next three or four months.”

And he added that he wouldn’t have a decision on his political future in “the near future. I really don’t have any set timetable.”

But he’s not saying no, which is probably a relief to Republican Senate leaders in Washington D.C., who would love to see Sununu take on Hassan. As they mostly play defense in 2022, Senate Republicans see New Hampshire as one of just a handful of potential pickup opportunities.

“I’m not ruling anything out,” Sununu said recently in an interview with host Jack Heath on “Good Morning New Hampshire.” “But I’ll tell you, going down to Washington to be part of that mess is nothing I’d necessarily look forward to right now, that’s for sure.”

Besides Sununu, there’s plenty of speculation on whether Ayotte will make a bid for her old Senate seat.

“If Sununu decides to run - a far from certain decision - the 2022 US Senate race in New Hampshire will emerge as a top five race in the U.S.,” predicted veteran New Hampshire based political scientist Wayne Lesperance.

“If he does not decide to run, look for former U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte to emerge as the likely challenger. The former senator has quietly been making rounds among Republican leaders and has positioned herself well to be a very strong challenger to Sen. Hassan in what would be a well-funded rematch for Hassan and Ayotte,” added Lesperance, vice president of academic affairs at New England College.

If Sununu does run for the Senate, or doesn’t seek elective office at all in 2022, which Republicans will run for the Corner Office? And regardless of what Sununu decides, which Democrats will make gubernatorial bids?

Many of these questions will be answered in 2021.

State House questions

The political fight over the state’s next two-year budget will of course dominate political discourse in Concord and across the state in 2021.

But amid the coronavirus – the worst pandemic to strike the globe in a century – there’s a much more immediate and practical question. How – and where – will lawmakers meet – especially the 400 member New Hampshire House of Representatives?

The plan for state representatives to gather next week while sitting in their vehicles at a parking lot on the University of New Hampshire campus in Durham for a “drive-in” session is already receiving plenty of pushback.

“As we turn to the new year, Granite Staters of all political stripes typically focus on the budget for the biennium. The coming year, however, will begin, at least, with a more pragmatic question – how will the legislature function in a safe and responsible manner that limits COVID exposure,” Lesperance noted.

“What’s proposed is nothing short of a road tour for the New Hampshire legislature. It remains to be seen how well this will go and what distractions will emerge making even more difficult the legislative tasks that face our elected officials in Concord,” he added.

Politics of vaccines

Six in ten New Hampshire residents say they will almost certainly (42%) or probably (19%) get vaccinated when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available to them in the new year.

That’s the finding of a recent Granite State on-line poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. According to the survey, approximately three in ten say they will probably not (10%) or almost certainly not (21%) get vaccinated. The numbers were roughly in line with national surveys conducted around the same time in early December.

More interesting than the top-line numbers are the partisan, generational, education, geographic, and income divides.

Eighty-five percent of self-described Democrats in the Granite State say they’re likely to get vaccinated. That number drops to 52% among independents and 41% among Republicans.

According to the survey, those age 65 and older (76%) are more likely than younger people to get vaccinated.

Those with postgraduate (80%) or college degrees (72%) say they’ll definitely or probably take the shots. That number drops to 48% for those with a high school degree or less.

The survey indicates that Seacoast (75%) or Massachusetts border (75%) residents said they were likely to get vaccinated. That number plunges to just 35% of North Country residents who feel the same way.

And higher-income residents were more likely than lower-income Granite Staters to take the shots.

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